Walk to Work Day was last week. Chances are, if you are reading this in the Aiken area, you didn’t. And it’s not entirely your fault. Walking is one form of active transportation, which also includes cycling and other physically active modes of moving from place to place. Active transportation is important for health, environmental, and economic reasons. But being able to participate in active transportation depends on more than your own interest; it also depends on the built environment in your community.
Commuting by walking or bicycling is associated with more overall activity, lower body weight, and reduced cardiovascular disease risk factors. People who engage in active transportation get an average of 12–15 minutes of physical activity per day and 30% meet the 30 minutes per day recommendation. Considering that over a quarter of trips are less than 1 mile and most are less than five miles, most people could replace at least some driving with walking or biking.
Increasing active transportation can improve the environment. A modest decrease in vehicle miles traveled could result in a reduction in both particulate matter and greenhouse gas pollution. Air pollution even declines during single day “open streets” events, suggesting that the benefits can be achieved quickly and persist based on the number of people who participate. Having more people walking or biking for transportation makes it safer for others to join them and creates more “eyes on the streets,” which may help with crime prevention and improve safety for everyone.
There are important economic benefits of active transportation for both individuals and communities. Given the costs associated with owning and operating a car, active transportation is almost always more affordable, even when combined with public transportation. For communities, increased walking and biking can have a positive impact on business. Development projects that include infrastructure for active transportation result in increased commercial and residential property values and create more jobs. More and more, access to safe sidewalks, bike lanes, and multiuse paths are reasons businesses and families choose to—or choose not to—settle in certain communities.
The ability to participate in active transportation depends on investment in the built environment, which refers to the layout of our communities, including roads, sidewalks, and where homes and businesses are located. In larger cities, an effective public transportation network can increase active transportation.
However, many people live in areas where there aren’t sidewalks or, if there are, the distances between destinations are too far to make walking convenient. Or using sidewalks may be challenging due to poor maintenance, automobile traffic, or dangerous road crossings. Even when signals for pedestrians exist, there may not be enough time to safely cross the street, a serious limitation for those with limited mobility. In many cases, the built environment can actually discourage—even prevent—physical activity.
This is especially true in the Aiken area, where sidewalks are generally poorly maintained or missing altogether and our one bike lane was removed shortly after being installed. Unfortunately, this has an impact on the health of our environment and the people who live in our community as well as potential negative economic implications.
Until this changes, we can all raise the visibility of this issue by participating in active transportation as often as possible, even if it is just for short trips. And we can support the efforts of community organizations who are working to improve resources and safety for pedestrians and cyclists. Becoming more active ourselves and supporting others to do the same is the best way to demonstrate a need for better infrastructure to promote active transportation in our community.